Thursday, 27 August 2015

Net Neutrality India

Your favorite app provider signs up with a telecom operator, which is different from your current one, for providing zero rated services. For starters, Zero Rating plans allow internet companies to grant access to their apps and services or websites absolutely free of charge, by making a deal with telecom providers. So where users of this telecom operator will use that app for free, you will pay for internet to use your favorite app. In such a scenario, where a different telecom service provider is providing zero rated services that covers your favorite app, will you change your service provider? Naturally any prudent person would, but you might be using several apps and all those app platforms might not sign up with a single telecom operator for zero rated services. Eventually you will end up subscribing to all telecom operators which practically wont be feasible. Consumers might benefit from these services in the short run but the larger impact of such a venture should not be neglected.

Firstly, the idea of providing zero rated services is against the concept of net neutrality. 

Net Neutrality! Does the word sound familiar?  

The father of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee himself revealed that internet was designed as neutral medium. A packet of data - an email, a video, any document - should be treated the same. It doesn’t matter if it is sent by an individual or a multinational company. There should not be any restriction on the basis of economical interests or motivations.

Sir Tim Berners- Lee explains, "When I designed the Web, I deliberately built it as a neutral, creative and collaborative space, building on the openness the Internet offered. My vision was that anyone, anywhere in the world could share knowledge and ideas without needing to buy a license or ask permission from myself or any CEO, government department or committee. This openness unleashed a tidal wave of innovation, and it is still powering new breakthroughs in technology, business, culture and much more besides."

 As Sir Tim Berners-Lee puts it, net neutrality at the core means each 'packet' of data must be treated equally by the network. He further emphasizes that there should be no censorship and the state should not restrict any legal content by the citizens.

 Internet, till date has fostered innovation, new business ideas, higher connectivity thus promoting the development of every person associated with it. Most important of all, internet has helped sustain fair competition. The moment we manipulate with the neutral fabric of internet, we will open the Pandora’s Box.  The competition existing in the market would cease to exist and won’t allow germination of new ideas.

Startups would be at the mercy of telecom operators and internet service providers (ISPs). They would become gatekeepers, in the sense they will decide who the new entrants in the market would be. The conducive environment that neutral internet provides for innovation would suddenly turn hostile and will have serious negative repercussions in the long run.

Net neutrality is imperative purely for the sake of inventions. The likes of Google and Facebook would not have existed if not for the neutral fabric of the internet. Ironically some of the big companies those survived because of net neutrality are trying to jeopardize the very essence of internet. The launch of ‘Airtel Zero’ was met with severe criticism and fortunately the timely backlash on social media forced the company to drop their plans. Similarly Facebook’s ‘internet.org’ is interpreted as its covert strategy to void the emergence of another Facebook.

Unfortunately, there are no regulatory rules regarding Net neutrality. TRAI, the telecom regulatory authority in India recently came up with a paper for the formation of regulations regarding net neutrality and the fate of over the top (OTT) internet based services like WhatsApp.

Net neutrality is equal access to data. ISPs and telecom operators want to claim the freedom to innovate and operate their businesses without the intervention of moral regulations. Apart from Zero-rating services abolishment of net neutrality will allow ISPs to create fast lane and slow lane. In a fast lane specific websites will be allotted higher bandwidth while others will be clubbed in a lower bandwidth. Sites clubbed in lower bandwidth will function slow and will have to pay to these ISPs if they want to move in a fast lane. Industry lobbyists claim that certain content like education, research and news must be easier to access than “cat videos”.

Though there is ample argument over net neutrality in India the entire debate seems to be urban specific rather than a comprehension of national interest. Of the entire urban population 42% have access to internet while only 6% in rural India have access to internet. Also internet penetration in India is mere 24%. Amidst such deprivation, how relevant is equal access to data when majority of the chunk has no access at all.

In developed countries where affordability is not an issue, creation of slow and fast lanes can further deter the equal accessibility of data at equal price. In India it is pivotal to address both affordability and accessibility.


Though zero-rating is seen as an evil plot devised by internet heavyweights to ensure their dominance, regulators must strategize to leverage such options to make utile date available to underprivileged chunk of the country. Though net neutrality considers cat videos and educational lectures as equal, children in remote India who are deprived of educational infrastructure certainly values free online education, whichever way they get it.

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